A Vaccine’s Progress

Posted in Biographical, Covid-19, Maynooth on May 8, 2021 by telescoper

As I mentioned a few days ago, I was able to register for my shot of Covid-19 vaccine on Thursday 6th May, which I duly did. For those of you who haven’t yet registered in Ireland, it’s a straightforward process although you do need a mobile phone as well as an internet connection.

I said in my earlier post that

…I have no idea what that means for when, where or with what I will actually get vaccinated. As with so many things these days we’ll just have to wait and see.

When I registered I was informed that it would be up to three weeks before an appointment would be arranged. Actually, I got a text this morning giving the answers to all three questions I wondered about in that quote, and very interesting they turned out to be!

First my appointment is actually on Tuesday 11th May, just three days from now. The location is Citywest Convention Centre, in Saggart (outside Dublin), and the vaccine I will be receiving is Pfizer/BioNTech.

All three of these pieces of information surprised me: the date (because it is so soon – not that I’m complaining about that); the location (because I was led to believe I would be vaccinated in the County I live in, Kildare, the vaccination centre for which is Punchestown Racecourse, near Naas; Citiwest is in County Dublin); and the vaccine (for reasons I discussed here, I assumed I would be given either the AstraZeneca or Janssen (J&J) vaccine).

Anyway, I’m delighted with the way it has turned out, which means I’ll could well be fully vaccinated by the end of June, depending on the timing of the second dose.

The only (very slight) downside to this is that I was actually quite looking forward to visiting the racecourse at Punchestown as I’ve never been there before and it is an easy journey from Maynooth by bus. The consultant who looks at my knees from time to time is at Naas Hospital, so the trip is a familiar one to me. Citiwest may be marginally closer as the crow flies, but it’s basically inaccessible by public transport from here so I’ll have to get a taxi there and back. The vaccination system here seems to assume that everyone has a car as many of the big centres are in out-of-town locations hard to reach by public transport.

Some people I know who have had this vaccine have reported side-effects and others have experienced none whatsoever. I’ll just have to wait and see what happens in my case. I’ll get my jab in the morning so if I do react badly to it I’ll have an excuse for missing the Faculty Meeting scheduled for Tuesday afternoon!

What should universities keep after Covid?

Posted in Education, Maynooth with tags , , , on May 7, 2021 by telescoper

On the last day of teaching for this academic year, with reasonably encouraging signs of some form of reopening of campus education being possible in September, it will shortly be time to think about how we proceed next academic year.

It seems obvious to me that although university staff have worked very hard over the last year the Covid-19 restrictions have meant that we have not been able to provide the level of education we would have liked and most of us are longing to get back to some form of face-to-face teaching. On the other hand, the restrictions imposed upon us have generated some new approaches and it would be silly just to abandon what we have learnt and go straight back to the way things were before the pandemic.

I have two main things in mind, one on teaching and one on assessment, both of them relating to my own discipline – theoretical physics – but hopefully of some wider interest.

Implementing the Lane-Emden equation as two coupled first-order ODEs.

First, on teaching. Over the past year we have mainly been delivering lectures and tutorials remotely, using a mixture of platforms (Zoom, Panopto, Microsoft Teams, etc). Most lecturers have done lectures as live webcasts as well as recording the sessions to be viewed later. I have used Panopto for most of mine, actually. I am actually looking forward to being able to dismantle the setup I have in my study for this, to reclaim a bit of space, but probably won’t do so until we know for sure what we’ll be doing next Semester!

(By the way does anyone know where I should send the bill to my employers for their use of my study over the last year?)

For the record, I have found about 50% of the registered students have watched the lectures as live broadcasts from my home; the rest watch the recordings offline.

Maynooth didn’t have any facilities for lecture capture on campus until September 2020, in contrast to my two previous employers – the University of Sussex and Cardiff University – who both had systems in place long before the pandemic. I blogged about this 8 years ago, in fact. In Cardiff they actually use Panopto; all lectures were recorded as standard. In my view the benefits of lecture capture far outweigh the disadvantages, and we should incorporate recordings of lectures as part of our standard teaching provision, as a supplement to learning rather than to replace face-to-face sessions.

It seems to me that much of the argument against providing lecture recordings is from older staff who thing the younger generations should learn exactly the same way they themselves did despite the reality that classroom teaching in schools is now utterly different from what my generation experienced.

My view is that every student learns in a different way and we should therefore be doing as much as we possibly can to provide a diverse range of teaching resources so that each can find the combination that suits them best. Technology allows us to do this far better now than in the past.

Some really enjoy live lecture sessions, but others don’t. Others have reasons (such as disability) for not being able to attend in-person lectures, so providing recordings can help them. But why not in that case provide recordings for everyone? That seems to me to be a more inclusive approach.

The problem with continuing lecture capture beyond September 2021 in Maynooth is that we will need to improve the cameras and recording equipment in the large lecture rooms to make this possible for lectures with a significant mathematical content, as the existing setups in teaching rooms do not easily allow the lecturer to record material on a whiteboard or blackboard. In Cardiff the larger rooms have more than one camera, usually one on the lectern and one on the screen or whiteboard (which has to be placed further away and therefore needs to be of higher resolution). In Maynooth we only have small podium cameras in the teaching rooms.

The next topic is assessment. Since we were forced to switch to online timed assessments last May we have been doing most of our assessments that way. The student is given an exam paper at the appointed time, which they do on their own, then scan and upload their answers online (in our case via Moodle).

This mode of assessment has its problem. One is the possibility that students can collude (as there are no invigilators). Another is that not all students have a home environment conducive to taking an examination, nor a decent internet connection.

We decided to implement these as truly “open book” exams in which students are free to consult their notes, textbooks and internet resources. That format means it is pointless to ask the students to regurgitate definitions or learn derivations by rote so we concentrate on problem-solving, testing the understanding and application of concepts. Although it makes it a little harder to construct the examination papers, I think this a good way of assessing ability and knowledge of physics. If we can go do exams back on campus I think we should retain this approach at least for advanced topics, providing supervised spaces on campus to prevent collusion.

There are doubtless many other innovations we have brought in over the last year that people feel strongly about (one way or the other). Feel free to share them through the comments!

Bernard Schutz FRS!

Posted in Cardiff, The Universe and Stuff with tags , , , , on May 6, 2021 by telescoper

I was idly wondering earlier this week when the annual list of new Fellows elected to the Royal Society would be published, as it is normally around this time of year. Today it finally emerged and can be found here.

I am particularly delighted to see that my erstwhile Cardiff colleague Bernard Schutz (with whom I worked in the Data Innovation Research Institute and the School of Physics & Astronomy) is now an FRS! In fact I have known Bernard for quite a long time – he chaired the Panel that awarded me an SERC Advanced Fellowship in the days before STFC, and even before PPARC, way back in 1993. It just goes to show that even the most eminent scientists do occasionally make mistakes…

Anyway, hearty congratulations to Bernard, whose elevation to the Royal Society follows the award, a couple of years ago, of the Eddington Medal of the Royal Astronomical Society about which I blogged here. The announcement from the Royal Society is rather brief:

Bernard Schutz is honoured for his work driving the field of gravitational wave searches, leading to their direct detection in 2015.

I thought I’d add a bit more detail by repeating what was included in the citation for Bernard’s Eddington Medal which focuses on his invention of a method of measuring the Hubble constant using coalescing binary neutron stars. The idea was first published in September 1986 in a Letter to Nature. Here is the first paragraph:

I report here how gravitational wave observations can be used to determine the Hubble constant, H 0. The nearly monochromatic gravitational waves emitted by the decaying orbit of an ultra–compact, two–neutron–star binary system just before the stars coalesce are very likely to be detected by the kilometre–sized interferometric gravitational wave antennas now being designed1–4. The signal is easily identified and contains enough information to determine the absolute distance to the binary, independently of any assumptions about the masses of the stars. Ten events out to 100 Mpc may suffice to measure the Hubble constant to 3% accuracy.

In this paper, Bernard points out that a binary coalescence — such as the merger of two neutron stars — is a self calibrating `standard candle’, which means that it is possible to infer directly the distance without using the cosmic distance ladder. The key insight is that the rate at which the binary’s frequency changes is directly related to the amplitude of the gravitational waves it produces, i.e. how `loud’ the GW signal is. Just as the observed brightness of a star depends on both its intrinsic luminosity and how far away it is, the strength of the gravitational waves received at LIGO depends on both the intrinsic loudness of the source and how far away it is. By observing the waves with detectors like LIGO and Virgo, we can determine both the intrinsic loudness of the gravitational waves as well as their loudness at the Earth. This allows us to directly determine distance to the source.

It may have taken 31 years to get a measurement, but hopefully it won’t be long before there are enough detections to provide greater precision – and hopefully accuracy! – than the current methods can manage!

Here is a short video of Bernard himself talking about his work:

Once again, congratulations to Bernard on a very well deserved election to a Fellowship of the Royal Society.

UPDATE: a more detailed biography of Bernard is now available on the Royal Society website.

The 2021 Gruber Prize for Cosmology: Marc Kamionkowski, Uroš Seljak &Matias Zaldarriaga

Posted in The Universe and Stuff on May 5, 2021 by telescoper

I’ve just heard via the IAU newsletter that the 2021 Gruber Prize for Cosmology has been awarded to Marc Kamionkowski, Uroš Seljak and Matias Zaldarriaga (from left to right in the picture). Congratulations to them on a well-deserved honour!

In brief the prize is awarded for their contributions to the study of the Cosmic Microwave Background (CMB) and the early Universe. The three recipients of the prize developed techniques to use observations of the CMB to derive information about the early Universe, including some classic work in the 1990s developing the CMBFAST code for calculating properties of the CMB and seminal papers on the polarization of the CMB published in 1997 here and here that did a huge amount to advance that as the important topic it remains this day.

For a fuller description see the press release here.

Notes from the Last Week

Posted in Biographical, Covid-19, Education, Maynooth on May 5, 2021 by telescoper

So it’s Wednesday of the last week of teaching here at Maynooth. I’ve got three lectures today, two on Advanced Electromagnetism and one on Engineering Mathematics, and after that my lecturing will be done for this Semester and indeed this academic year. In fact two of today’s lectures will be revision classes as I’ve finished covering the syllabus in both of these modules.

That doesn’t everything related to teaching is over, of course. Tomorrow we have final-year project presentations to assess and after that the final Computational Physics laboratory. That is really just a  virtual drop-in session as students finish off their mini-projects to be handed in on Friday.

Next week is a study week – so no lectures –  but I’ll be using the time to finish off grading coursework and lab tests ahead of the examinations online timed assessments, which start on Friday 14th May. As it happens I have an examination on that day so will be occupied supervising it and then immediately afterwards marking the scripts (electronically). Then next week I have two further assessments and related marking. That should all be finished by the end of May and we then have Examination Boards and related activities in June.

It’s been a tough year. This Semester in particular seems to have lasted an eternity. It’s been bad enough for the staff but has undoubtedly been worse for the students.

People are already asking about what’s going to happen for the new academic year which starts in September. The only honest answer to that is that is that we have no absolutely idea. The possibilities range from being completely back to normal with teaching in classrooms on campus to there being nothing on campus at all, like at present. Which of these turns out to be the case depends primarily on the rate of vaccination in Ireland during the summer.

Talking of which, I will be to register for my shots from tomorrow (6th May) but I have no idea what that means for when, where or with what I will actually get vaccinated. As with so many things these days we’ll just have to wait and see…

Rights Retention, Open Access and Learned Society Publishing.

Posted in Open Access on May 4, 2021 by telescoper

The April 2021 issue of Physics World arrived this morning after the usual month in the post to Ireland. I don’t know why it takes so long. My copy of Private Eye usually takes just a couple of days.

Anyway, there is an interview in the latest issue with Steve Hall, the former Managing Director of IOP Publishing who stepped down last month. The piece is entitled The Future of Learned-Society Publishing. Here’s a short excerpt:

I laughed out loud when I read the bit about the “downsides” of a rights-retention policy (basically that authors of a work keep the copyright to their work). Such a policy would of course undermine the subscription model and the Gold Open Access models in the way Steven Hall describes, but that is exactly why it is a good idea as neither of these models is sustainable or justifiable. The Open Journal of Astrophysics – a Diamond Open Access journal fully compliant with Plan S – allows authors to own the copyright of their papers. I’d be astonished if anyone who has the best interests of scientific research at heart would argue against such a policy.

This interview does raise an interesting aspect of the ongoing debate about Open Access publishing is the extent to which “learned societies”, such as the Royal Astronomical Society and the Institute of Physics, rely for their financial security upon the revenues generated by publishing traditional journals.

IOP Publishing is a wholly-owned subsidiary of the Institute of Physics that generates a sizeable annual income – tends of millions of pounds – from books and journals. This is the largest source of the revenue that the IoP needs to run its numerous activities relating to the promotion of physics. A similar situation pertains to the Royal Astronomical Society, although on a smaller scale, as it relies for much of its income from Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society.

Not surprisingly, these and other learned societies are keen to protect their main source of cash. When I criticized the exploitative behaviour of IoP Publishing in a blog post some time ago, I drew a stern response from the Chief Executive of the Institute of Physics, Paul Hardaker. That comment seems to admit that the high prices charged by IOP Publishing for access to its journals is nothing to do with the cost of disseminating scientific knowledge but is instead a means of generating income to allow the IoP to pursue its noble aim of “promoting Physics”. This explains why such organizations have lobbied very hard for the “Gold” Open Access that is being foisted on the research community, rather than the far more justifiable Diamond Open Access.

The problem with the learned societies behaving this way is twofold. First, I consider it to be inevitable that the traditional journal industry will very soon be completely bypassed by other modes of publication. The internet has changed the entire landscape of scientific publication. It’s now so cheap and so easy to disseminate knowledge that journals are already redundant, especially in my field of astrophysics. The “Gold” OA favoured by such organizations is unjustifiable and unsustainable and it won’t last. The IoP, RAS et al need to find another way of funding their activities pronto, or downsize accordingly.

The other problematic aspect of this approach is that I think it is fundamentally dishonest. University and institutional libraries are provided with funds to provide access to published research, not to provide a backdoor subsidy for a range of extraneous activities that have nothing to do with disseminating research. The learned societies do many good things – and some are indeed oustandingly good – but that does not give them the right to syphon off funds from their constituents in this way. Institutional affiliation, paid for by fee, would be a much fairer way of funding these activities than raiding library budgets.

I should point out that, as a FRAS and a FInstP, I pay annual subscriptions to both the RAS and the IoP. I am happy to do so, as I feel comfortable spending some of my own money supporting astronomy and physics. What I don’t agree with is my department having to fork out huge amounts of money from an ever-dwindling budget for access to scientific research that should in any case be in the public domain because it has already been funded by the taxpayer.

Some time ago I had occasion to visit the London offices of a well-known charitable organization which shall remain nameless. The property they occupied was glitzy, palatial and obviously very expensive. I couldn’t help wondering how they could square the opulence of their headquarters with the quoted desire to spend as much as possible on their good works. Being old and cynical, I came to the conclusion that, although charities might start out with the noblest intentions, there is a grave danger that they simply become self-serving, viewing their own existence in itself as more important than what they do for others.

The academic publishing industry has definitely gone that way. It arose because of the need to review, edit, collate, publish and disseminate the fruits of academic labour. Then the ease with which profits could be made led it astray. It now fulfils little or no useful purpose, but simply consumes financial resources that could be put to much better effect actually doing science. Fortunately, I think the scientific community knows this and the parasite will die a natural death.

But I wonder if the learned societies will go the same way. Is there a financial model according to which they can enjoy a stable and sustainable future? Are they actually needed? After all, if we can publish our own physics, why can’t we ourselves also promote it?

Cosmology Talks about the Open Journal of Astrophysics

Posted in Open Access, The Universe and Stuff with tags , , on May 3, 2021 by telescoper

I have from time to time posted videos from the series of Cosmology Talks curated by Shaun Hotchkiss. These are usually technical talks at the level you might expect for a cosmology seminar, but this time it’s something different. Shaun asked me if I’d like to give a talk about the Open Journal of Astrophysics, so one night last week we recorded this. We ended up chatting about quite a lot of things so it turned out longer than most of the videos in the series, but it’s not a technical talk so I hope you’ll find it bearable!

At the Castle Gate

Posted in Covid-19, Music on May 2, 2021 by telescoper

When (if?) this Covid business ends I hope we’ll remember the things that kept us going through it. Here is one of the socially distanced concerts broadcast by RTÉ Lyric FM*. I hope that in a few years’ time people will look back on recordings of events like this and understand what a weird time it has been. People come and go, but the music continues.

I found the performance of the incidental music by Jean Sibelius for Pelléas et Mélisande  starting at about 24.40 very moving, the isolation of the orchestra and the emptiness of the hall, enhancing the extraordinarily beautiful music. I think fans of The Sky At Night will enjoy it too…

 

P.S. It was the 22nd birthday of RTE Lyric FM on May 1st 2021..

Thoughts on Lá Bealtaine

Posted in Biographical, Covid-19, Education, Maynooth with tags , , on May 1, 2021 by telescoper

Today, 1st May, Beltane (Bealtaine in Irish) is an old Celtic festival that marks the mid-point between the Spring Equinox and the Summer Solstice. It’s one of the so-called Cross-Quarter Days that lie exactly halfway between the equinoxes and solstices. These ancient festivals have been moved so that they take place earlier in the modern calendar than the astronomical events that represent their origin: the halfway point between the Spring Equinox and Summer Solstice is actually next week.

Anyway, any excuse is good for a Bank Holiday long weekend, so let me offer a hearty Lá Bealtaine sona daoibh!

While not excessively warm, the weather is at least pleasant enough for me to have had my breakfast outside in the garden. As I was sipping my coffee I thought how much nicer it is to be in my own home during all this. The one really big positive about last year was that I managed to buy a house and move in during a few-month window when that was possible.

I put up a post last year on May Day that was dominated by Covid-19. I didn’t really imagine that we would still be under restrictions a whole year later, but I didn’t imagine that vaccines would be available so quickly either. Now it seems I will have the chance to register for my shot(s) next week with the view to getting a first dose sometime in June. Possibly.

The precise timing of my vaccination shot isn’t particularly important to me at this point, as it looks like I’ll be stuck at work all summer with no possibility of a holiday (as was the case last year). On the bright side, my three-year term as Head of Department ends after next academic year so there is some light at the end of the tunnel.

Despite the slow progress with vaccination – currently only about 28.5% of the adult population have received a first dose – and the very high case numbers – about 450 per day on average, and not decreasing – Ireland is now entering a phase of modest relaxation. I think this is far too early and that there’s a real risk of another surge here before any kind of herd immunity is achieved. I hope I’m proved wrong. At least it doesn’t look likely to get as bad as India, where the pandemic is truly out of control.

Workwise we have just completed the penultimate teaching week of Semester 2. Monday is a Bank Holiday so we have four days of teaching left, before a Study Week and the start of examinations. The last week will be busy with assessments and other things, though I imagine most lecturers will be doing revision rather than presenting a lot of new material. In the last few classes. That’s what I plan to do anyway.

Examinations Online Timed Assessment start on 14th May. I have three to supervise and then mark so much of the rest of May will be taken up with that, which has to be done before the Examination Boards in June. After that I suppose we’ll find out what our Lords and Masters have in mind for the start of next academic year…

International Jazz Day – A Tribute to Humph

Posted in Biographical, Jazz with tags , , on April 30, 2021 by telescoper

Today is International Jazz Day which gives me an excuse to post this documentary about the late great Humphrey Lyttelton the anniversary of whose death was last weekend; he passed away on 25th April 2008.

I particularly like this programme because, as well as talking about his own career as a musician and bandleader and as brilliant chairman of the panel show I’m Sorry I Haven’t A Clue, it mentions his radio show The Best of Jazz which I listened to avidly every Monday night and from which I learned a huge amount about the music that I love so much. I taped many of these broadcasts actually, but have long since lost the cassettes. Although his own music was in the mainstream he always played a wide selection of Jazz tracks both ancient and modern on his programme and introduced me to many artists I would otherwise never have heard of.